Avoid losing it in the classroom

By Phil Slade


Prior to becoming a psychologist, I trained as a primary school teacher. During my practicum placements I saw first hand just how much time great teachers spent managing their own emotions, parents’ expectations, difficult students, and at times, difficult colleagues. All things that are rarely talked about in teacher training, but all critical to becoming a successful educator. My own father (a school headmaster at the time) would often talk about how teachers, parents or students over-react, making a situation much more complicated than necessary.


We all know what it feels like to lose our cool, to flip our lid, or to finally lose our patience with someone. It’s not that we’re incompetent or bad, it’s just that we’re human. Our brains are hard-wired to react when we feel threatened or tired in order to remain safe or recuperate.


We all have a reactive, emotional mental system that uses parts of the brain that we also find in our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees. We call this, our Ape. Then there is a second system of processing which uses parts of the brain that wrap around, or cage, our Ape. This is the more conscious, more responsive self that helps us plan, inhibit behaviour and solve problems. When we go Apes#!t, in effect we’re unlocking the mental cage that usually holds things together and we’re allowing our Apes to run wild for a bit.


Psychological science shows that our ability to control our reactive Ape is the most significant predictor of success in life. Helping ourselves and students understand and manage emotions is critical for mental health and well-being, as well as social and academic success. Whether dealing with parents, students, colleagues, or your own reactivity, taming Apes will make life significantly less complicated and help create a more authentic and harmonious environment.


So how do you switch out of a reactive Ape state into a more conscious, constructive mindset? Or how do you have difficult conversations without triggering Apes? Below is the process I use that works every time.


Step 1: Use a mental switch to calm your own Ape down first. When you go Apes#!t you are not listening, understanding, or able to behave in a rational way. There are many tricks that can be found in my book Going ApeS#!t, or in the Decida Switch app, but two common techniques include reframing (creating multiple possible reasons for others’ behaviour) or box breathing (in for four counts, hold for four counts, out for four counts, hold for four counts).


Step 2: Actively listen. Learn to do things like repeat the last three words of a sentence as a question so they can elaborate more, or summarise your understanding of the problem back to them to signal that they have been heard and understood. If Apes don’t feel like they have been heard they will not settle down or allow you to constructively move on.


Step 3: Connect. Be on their side, partnering with them. Try to articulate how they are feeling, or how the situation makes them feel. It might be, “This is incredibly frustrating isn’t it” or “I can see how this is quite stressful and making everyone quite anxious”. Accurately labelling emotions will reposition the conversation from talking ‘at’ each other, to talking ‘with’ each other, together focussing on the shared problem to solve.


Step 4: Co-create strategies to solve the problem. Don’t go into the detail yet–simply discuss a way forward that identifies the issue and addresses the emotions articulated in the previous step. This technique helps calm the Apes, so they are ready to explore the detail of what that means.


Step 5: Get into the detail of implementation. Agree and commit to what to do, who needs to do it, and by when. It’s also sometimes useful to break down certain tasks into small steps so people get a sense of progress and you continue to build trust.


These steps might take minutes or they might take days depending on the complexity or sensitivity. By organising discussions, meeting agendas, written communication, or even your own thoughts in this way, you will efficiently be able to navigate complexity, and help tame your own, and others’ Apes.